A lush California valley with dozens of wineries and acres of vines cooled by ocean breezes. Napa? Sonoma? No – you are in the heart of Southern California’s Temecula Valley. Few of us realize that until well into the 19th century, it was southern – not southern – California that was the heart of the state’s winemaking industry. In fact, it all started in the south at Mission San Diego in 1769.
Today, Temecula is the home to small, charming, family-owned wineries that contrast sharply with the corporate-owned behemoths of the Napa Valley. Here, despite its location only an hour or two from both San Diego and Los Angeles, there are no traffic jams or lines in tasting rooms, and you often find the knowledgeable person discussing the wine with you is the winemaker or vineyard manager.
Framed by coastal mountains, Temecula is a land of rolling hills with vineyards planted at elevations of 1,500 to 2,500 feet. Cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling do well here, as evidenced by Thornton Winery which specializes in sparkling wines (alas, Thornton persists in calling their sparkling wine “Champagne”, but at least it is all méthode champenoise). Their 2004 Brut Reserve was one of those great surprises that wine geeks live for – sipping it with low expectations for “Champagne” from southern California, I found it was quite simply the most enjoyable sparkling wine I have ever had. Full bodied in the style of Roederer or Bollinger, it had a wonderful yeastiness that was made all the more enjoyable by the outdoor patio setting in the midst of vineyards under skies a shade of blue only achievable in coastal California.
But it was the classic Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc – that turned my head on a recent visit here. While a number of the single varietals were notable, it was the 2005 Field Blend at Oak Mountain Winery that best captured the spirit. Exactly what its label implies, this
wine was from a vineyard planted with all five of the reds grapes permitted in Bordeaux, all harvested and fermented together. While I believe selective blending is perhaps the highest expression of the winemaking art, somehow the romance of the ancient field blending practice appealed to me. The resulting wine was a deep, complex, structured fusion of blackberry and plum flavors with a lingering finish. And once again, the picturesque hilltop setting didn’t hurt a bit.
Surprisingly good wines in a relaxed, idyllic setting – what’s not to like? Put the top down and cruise the wineries of the Temecula Valley on your next winery adventure.